British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by J.D. Kelsall
Chapa Sumaku
Mwanza on Lake Victoria
It was in 1951, when I was serving as a Fisheries Officer of the Lake Victoria Fisheries Service and was stationed at Mwanza, Tanganyika (as it then was), that I first became acquainted with gill nets made from nylon twine - then a very new and high-tech, material so far as nets were concerned. My boss. Lt.Cdr. George Cole in Kisumu, sent me a couple of these nets with instructions to try them out and report on them. This I did and found that they not only caught more fish than conventional cotton and flax nets set alongside them in the same fleet , but also that they appeared to have a very long life by comparison with the other nets. I reported to my boss in these terms.

A few weeks later, George came to Mwanza on one of his periodic visits, bringing with him a bulging sack. This, he told me, contained 50 nylon gill nets and I was to take these on safari with me and to sell them to any interested fisherman who would like to try them. I asked how much I was to charge for a net. "Seventy-five shillings,'' said George. "And that's cost price." Apparently the nets had been made by hand by African Explosives and Chemical Industries, the South African subsidiary of ICI.

Chapa Sumaku
Fishermen on Lake Victoria
To say that I was staggered would be an understatement! At that time, most of the African fishermen in my area used home-made cotton nets which they made from sewing twine produced by the well-known firm of J. and P. Coates of Paisley. A fully mounted net cost about Shs 7.50 to produce -- the fisherman's time counted for nothing and a man would walk down the road with hs netting wound on a forked stick over his shoulder, knotting away at it as he went. That being so, who was likely to be interested in paying ten times as much for a kind of net with which he was totally unfamiliar? Afncan fishermen might be simple folk, but they are definitely not daft! However, I knew that they set great store by the actual strength of net twine and by their ability to break it with their bare hands -- not too difficult in the case of cotton or even flax twine. I therefore devised a "publicity" scheme, based on a small spool of nylon twine which had come with the nets. Arriving at a fishing camp on the Lake shore, I would assemble the fishermen under a convenient shady tree and extol the virtues of this new twine. I would go through an act of really exerting myself in an effort to break a length of twine and finally, using that dodge one employs to break parcel string by winding it round one hand and then looping it over itself and giving a smart tug, I would finally succeed in breaking the twine. I would then cut off a length and hand it to the nearest fisherman, inviting him to try to break it himself. The man would carefully wind the twine round a finger of one hand and then round a finger of the other hand and would then give a hearty tug, expecting the twine to part easily - as it eventually had with me. Of course it did not, and usually cut his fingers to the bone, evoking much merriment from his mates as the blood dripped from his wounded fingers. I would then suggest that he must be a weakling and, taking the twine from him, I would break it easily (using the parcel string dodge). Brutal maybe, but it certainly kindled keen interest and quite a ready sale for my nets - even at Shs 75.00 a time!

I noted the names of the fishermen who bought nets and asked them to keep a record of the catches made in them.

In the course of a safari a couple of months later, I visited the fishing camps where I had sold nets and asked the owners how they had found them in service. In every case there were beaming smiles and expressions of astonishment at the performance of these nets. As I had known would be the case, they had caught as much as five times as many fish as the old-style nets set adjacent to them. One man summed them up by telling me: Bwana, mitego hii ina uchawi kama sumaku! Yavuta samaki ndani yao. (These nets have magic like a magnet. They draw fish into them).

From then on, my nylon nets sold like hot cakes and my stock of fifty was soon gone. The fishermen who had them christened them Chapa Sumaku (magnet brand) and clamoured for more - which, in due course, were forthcoming. As time showed, not only did they catch many more fish than cotton or flax nets, but they were virtually indestructible, whereas the other types of net seldom lasted for longer than a month or so.

Having off-loaded my fifty nets at ten times the cost of a cotton net, I occasionally wondered whether, perhaps, I had made a mistake in choosing a career as a Fisheries Officer. Maybe I should have been a salesman..... ?

Colonial Map
Map of Northern Tanganyika and Lake Victoria, 1948
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 72: October 1996